The Future. Space. Time. Robots. Umpires. Ridiculous sentence fragments or the theme of the 2012 baseball season? From phantom tags to Hawk Harrelson rants to hits that weren’t during no-hitters (Johan Santana), the state of umpiring has unfortunately trumped all other story lines this season. With Bud Selig considering an all-powerful “Fifth Umpire” to monitor instant replay from a top secret, underground facility for the 2013 season, and with tweets of “Robot Umps Now!” becoming a rallying call for cyborg-loving baseball fans, Major League Baseball stands at a precipice. When clones outnumber humans 2-to-1 in the not so distant future, this will be seen as the breaking point.
The always amusing Casey Stengel, as traditional a figure as there can be, was even calling for some sort of electronic guidance as far back as 1960:
“I believe every umpire should take an examination in which his ball-and-strike decisions are compared to some sort of photographic record if just where the pitches really were. They use radar and electronics for everything else. I don’t know why it can’t be done in baseball.”
Stengel was right, this guy would have made an excellent umpire:
But Stengel was already thirty years behind the times when he asked for radar-powered arbiters, as the first appearance of an automated strike calling machine appears all the way back in the 1930s. Thanks to the Great Depression, men and women had plenty of spare time to tinker with a mechanized umpire.
From a 1939 issue of Popular Science,and discovered by Larry Granillo, comes a highly complex series of lights and beams that would make it completely impossible for the batter or catcher to do their jobs:
While such a device would have ruined baseball, it would have looked great when set to the musical stylings of Pink Floyd.
Oddly enough, this wasn’t even the first time such an idea was floated. Three years earlier, Guy T. Lansford (a fake name if I’ve ever heard one) applied for a patent on a similar idea. Using photo electric cells, the ball would have to pass through a wall of “transparent” light to be considered a strike, causing a gong to ring out. Because that’s what baseball is missing, more gongs.
John Oram of Dallas, TX approached it from a similar direction in 1938, having his wall of light shine out from first base, but again (thankfully), this idea failed. Then World War II started up and the nation’s best and brightest decided, for some reason, to focus on other things instead of robotic umpires. Thanks to all-out global warfare, we missed out on electric eyebeams:
Worth the read.